“It kind of makes sense,”
says Filmmaker Saj Adibs.
“We would want
deaf children to hear,
but for deaf parents,
it’s normal to be deaf.”
Filmmaker Saj Adibs was nearly moved to tears by the story of a deaf couple he met on a project for his company New Slate Films in 2008.
“They were talking about losing friends and being shunned from their community,” he recalls. “Because they wanted to make the best choices for their children.”
Then he made a movie about them.
Louder Than Words is a documentary about seven years in the life of the Stark family — Jill, Michael, and their two children — all of whom are deaf. It won the Audience Award at the Wisconsin Film Festival after premiering in 2016, and gained distribution from Cow Lamp Films earlier this year.
The Starks were two of nearly thirty parents Adibs interviewed while making an informational video for Dr. Dana Suskind, a cochlear implant surgeon at the University of Chicago. Like all of the parents interviewed, they had enabled their daughter to hear sound by providing her with the devices.
Unlike the rest, however, the Starks’ decision sparked resentment from the community they had known and trusted most of their lives.
As Adibs explored the reality of their situation, he began to understand why.
“It kind of makes sense,” he says. “If you and I had deaf children, it would just be natural for us to want them to hear; but for deaf parents, it’s normal for them to be deaf.”
LOUDER THAN WORDS TRAILER
The method for inserting cochlear implants is a minimally invasive surgery performed under general anesthesia. Despite the low risks, deaf people who have learned to function adequately in the world often consider it dangerous, unnecessary, and threatening to their way of life.
To illustrate the divide caused by cochlear implants, Adibs complements the Starks’ story with that of Rachel Coleman, a “hearing mom who chose to get the implant for her child.”
The implants generally consist of external and internal parts that work together. A small microphone on the side of a person’s head gathers sound and sends it by wire to a transmitter that rests on the earlobe.
After processing the sound, the transmitter sends the signals by radio frequency to a receiver within the ear itself.
The receiver converts the sound into electrical impulses that are sent to an electrode imbedded within the spiral-shaped chamber of the inner ear called the cochlea.
In one scene of the film, a doctor explains cochlear implants to Jill, the deaf mother, who decided to get them “so that she could hear her daughter.”
Upon experiencing sound for the first time in her life, as a thirty-something adult, she describes “a feeling like I have a headache” and asks that for the implants to be switched off.
“Almost always, a parent who can hear will choose cochlear implants for their deaf child,” Adibs explains. “But if a deaf family has a deaf child, they will almost never choose cochlear implants.”
Infants take best to the implants because, in their world of nonstop surprises, sound is just another new sensation that will come as naturally as speaking by the time they become adults. But immediately after receiving the implants, they are introduced to the effects gradually.
“There are some of those feel-good, hearing-for-the-first-time videos on the internet, but that’s a rare occurrence,” says Adibs. “When you hear for the first time, the feeling is more scary than happy because you have no idea what sound is.
The Starks’ daughter, who received implants when she was nine-months-old, started to cry when she heard the first sounds of her life. According to Adibs, this is “how they gauge that they are working.”
By the end of the film, she listens and speaks with ease. But according to many people with hearing limitations, her gain is their loss.
“If they look ahead thirty years, they saw a world where their community doesn’t exist, where Deaf Culture kind of dies off,” Adibs continues. “From that angle, I really understand.”
In the process of caring for their son and the daughter who was born during production, the Starks made choices that caused anguish and cost friends. They offered Adibs a glimpse of the trouble to come during that first interview a decade ago.
“I still feel like I’m in that room,” he recalls. “It hit me, wow, these people had a really tough time caring for their children. They were willing to make so many personal sacrifices to make these choices for their kids.”
Adibs did not seek corporate sponsorship while making Louder Than Words because, he says, “I did not want deaf people to see this as a one-sided film.” But after it was completed, it did receive a theatrical release in Japan through Cochlear Limited, a manufacturer of cochlear implants.
The film is currently viewable on Xfinity, iTunes, and Amazon Prime, deals that Adibs was happy to arrange through Midwest indie film distributor Cow Lamp Films.
“Cow Lamp Director of Acquisition Josh Da Silva, who is also a filmmaker, presented a five-year plan with the company’s President, Jon Plowman,” he says. “I had enough knowledge from trying on my own to understand that they knew what they were talking about.”
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